Henrik Ibsen’s Brand at Red Tape Theater, directed by Max Truax—proclaimed as “Chicago’s leading avant garde director”—opened on Monday. This piece of theater is about as out-there—sorry, experimental—as it gets. The actors spend much of the play in eyelock with the audience, delivering their lines as direct address, rather than to the other characters. The experience is simultaneously intimate and invasive. Truax makes a lot of bold choices and lays his vision there in front of you—right in front of you; the actors were sometimes mere inches away, or closer. The story is sidelined in favor of this belligerent approach, but he gets some seriously visceral responses out of the audience, which is arguably one of the main purposes of theater.
The principal aim of avant garde theater is to leave its audience as confused as possible; and Brand delivers. I’m still not sure what exactly happened. On paper, the play is about a young, idealistic priest, Brand, and his utterly uncompromising philosophy of “all or nothing,” that one must sacrifice absolutely everything to God. His arc is one of the clearest in the play. Brand, played by Cody Proctor, walks on stage at the beginning of the play and you can see the certainty in his eyes. He feels more arrogant and ambitious than holy, strangely reminiscent to me of Lord Asriel in The Golden Compass books. But as he tries harder and harder to save the town he grew up in, he holds everyone in the play, including himself, to his impossible standard. As his doubt and grief grow, we watch him crumble. He picks up a wife along the way, Agnes, played by Cody Proctor, whose trippy, almost bipolar shifts from ecstasy to misery and back are as disturbing as they are mesmerizing.
For me and my small brain, much of the rest of the story was swallowed up by the postmodern factor. I couldn’t figure out, for example, where Einar, Brand’s creepy, satanic-looking childhood friend, fit at all. I am confident that You, O Reader, will not have this problem.
There is plenty to keep your interest in the visuals, rendered in smoke and chiaroscuro, which are stunning. The play is staged in Red Tape’s permanent space, the second floor of an Episcopal church in Boystown. They’ve filled it with old, decaying pews and books, a mess of rotten 2x4s arranged to look like crosses, and a couple of skeletal wood structures covered in plastic that look like new construction projects. If you look closely, you’ll see that they’ve raised the old basketball hoop, which betrays the space’s original secular purpose; so inside the real church, you have a fake church that has been completely abandoned. It feels holy, forbidden, and forgotten. Couple that with the strange Lost-like whispering sounds in the background for most of the play—are we meant to experience Brand’s madness?—and you’ve got yourself one creepy experience.
Let me pursue that line of thought a little further, so you understand just how creepy this show sometimes gets. This play is full of scenes where the actors deliver their lines directly to the audience, looking you right in the eye, and slowly boring a hole into your soul, a slightly uncomfortable and off-putting experience. Not that that’s bad. There’s something to be said for the very visceral experience you have as an audience member with all this direct contact, but it made me wonder whether it’s possible to make a genuine connection with an audience member by being this invasive. In some ways, I was never able to see these communions as more than a performance, and so I kept the experience at arms-length and didn’t let the actors in, laughing uncomfortably when my space bubble was completely exploded. Sometimes, though, I did feel more attachment to the actor who was looking at me, as if we shared something exclusive which none of the other audience members received. A delusion—right?—because each of them got their own evenly distributed eye-contact time. But I can’t deny that when Agnes, came up to me, touched my face and stoked my cheek for a moment, I felt something beyond performance, at least for a second. Maybe I was just flattered—and a little turned on—because I thought she singled me out because she thought I was cute, a rather narcissistic thought, even for me. Right, Hank, she's up there scouting out potential boyfriends.
One other effect of the direct address struck me. As all of the minor characters that Ibsen has appealing to Brand for help, in this production, actually ask the audience for help instead. It seems like everyone in the town is looking for a hero to solve their problems, but they don’t really know who that person is or what they believe in—an idea I find very relevant to our current political situation. A person’s image, a speech, or a heroic act, becomes what a person is known by, not their beliefs and actions. When the people finally understand who the guy really is—or maybe just when the honeymoon period is over—they feel wronged and deceived, and they reject their former hero…
All this actor-audience connection did undercut the connection between the actors, which might be a traditional aspect of theater, but it is also what we come to see. The actors spoke the verse in a poetical way that struck me as vaguely modern, but didn’t allow me to understand what was going on. I’m glad they didn’t tell me what to think, but I would at least like to be told what to think about. This production does not get me very interested in God, nor about Brand, his dilemma, or how useful and how hard to stick to his “all or nothing” philosophy really is. It does, however, ask a lot of earnest questions about theatricality, what’s possible onstage, and how theater artists can experiment in a world where seemingly everything has already been tried.
Brand runs at Red Tape Theater on the second floor of the Episcopal Church at 621 W Belmont until October 29th. Check out their website www.redtapetheater.com. The photos were taken by James D Palmer (in the theater) and Austin D. Oie (outside).